The grass spreads far, waving gently beneath the surface like a mermaid’s locks. A scant week before, so little water had covered the near-shore vegetation that the weeds resembled the bedding used to pack flats of bloodworms. There had been no fish beneath them; now there were.
It happens every year. Late in the summer, low water bares the tops of submergent plants such as milfoil or hydrilla, creating dense mats of vegetation. Then, as autumn begins, rain or human intervention will raise a lake’s water level. The water starts to cool and the weeds begin to die off. Soon, water covers the tops of the weed beds. The fish return — for a while.
Among the species affected by this cycle are largemouth bass, walleyes and northern pike. Each is impacted in slightly different ways, and knowing how to react could mean some spectacular sport for you in the fall.
** Turnover Bass**
Early in the cycle, before the water has cooled enough for a lake to turn over, my bass game centers on fishing inches beneath the surface over the tips of heavy weed beds. I use weedless spoons (the ancient Johnson Silver Minnow is still great, once you sharpen its hook), spinnerbaits, Rat-L-Spins, soft and hard jerkbaits and shallow-running crankbaits such as Bomber’s new Shallow “A.” After I work one of these lures over a sector of grass, I’ll switch to a noisy topwater lure and make another pass. The surface bait often “calls” fish that didn’t come on the first round. You get seconds.
After turnover, once the shallower weeds begin to die, corridors and pockets begin to open in the beds. The underwater scene slowly shifts from the solid mats of summer to a springtime look. You may even begin to see the stumps, rocks and other objects that concentrated fish in the spring, spots that were hidden by weeds all summer. Openings give bass an easier shot at forage — and your lures. Let sinking lures stall and drop in these openings, then snap them up again. Other lures that now come into play are weedless jigs, tube baits, plastic worms and weighted soft jerkbaits.
As temperatures drop further and more weeds die, big bass make dawn and dusk forays into the shallows (later in the fall they may visit on sunny afternoons), but overall the fish prefer greener vegetation in slightly deeper water. They like large-leaf pond weed (cabbage), milfoil and water hyacinth, particularly where an inside bend in a weed bed lies near both a flat and a drop into deeper water. Generally, in late autumn you will find fish in depths of 12 to nearly 20 feet. The same lures work, but if the weather sours the fish will move yet deeper, off the weed-bed edges. Then a Carolina rig, drop-weighted worm, tube or grub is the ticket to draw more strikes.
** Inshore Walleyes**
You always hear that fall walleye fishing means focusing on the edges of structure that drop into deep water, but that’s only one possibility. When the water temperature drops to 50 degrees and below something else happens. Many walleyes make a quick run inshore. Any spot where you found them in the spring — a gravelly spawning area, for instance — can briefly hold them now. If there are weed beds nearby, walleyes will use them, particularly in areas with current.
Water movement is the magic factor that concentrates weed-oriented walleyes. It comes from tributary inflows, neck-downs of surrounding land, bottom humps or even a steady wind over a weed-covered flat. I especially like weed-covered bars at the mouths of primary bays or coves, and weeded bars near river mouths. In a boat you can troll shallow-running minnow lures (original Rapalas are the archetype) or spinner rigs tipped with minnows, leeches or crawlers. Use an in-line planer board to get your offering away from the boat and over the weeds.
The autumn cycle brings out a special breed of walleye anglers who brave the chilling weather after dark. Those willing to stand the long hours in waders can catch some of the year’s largest walleyes. After a lake has turned over and cleared, fan-cast from shore with shallow-running minnow lures (try the new shallow Frenzy) aimed at current-swept corridors and points in weed beds. Relying on their superior night vision, walleyes feast ferociously by dark.
Once most of the shallow weed beds have become barren wastes, boat anglers need to locate deeper beds in 15 to 18 feet of water.
Rising water that lets bass move over weed beds is your signal that the pre-turnover pike frenzy is about to start. I watch for several cool days of light rain, with a little wind. It doesn’t matter if your favorite lake or reservoir is a deep one in which pike spent the summer hovering above the thermocline or a shallower, fertile lake where you caught only smaller fish all summer. Cooler, windy weather brings the big hen fish back to the shallow vegetation beds, and they will hit like barracuda attacking trolled surgical tubes.
The fish won’t be haphazardly located, nor will every bed hold them. They seek the best ambush points, which are often just that: points of weed beds, especially near current or drop-offs. The biggest weed beds are best, because they allow an extended troll. The best beds have breaks in them, spots that give pike clear shots at their prey. In addition to breaks and points, make sure to fish both the outside and inside edges of the weed beds.
If you troll, you’ll do well with traditional in-line bucktail spinners and spoons, but don’t overlook shallow-running minnow lures. Among the many available, the large Bombers in both jointed and straight configurations are excellent. You’ll need a stout rod and low-stretch line for this work.
If trolling isn’t for you, then target the smaller weed beds. The best areas are weeded, windswept flats in the main lake, and flats near the entrances of major bays. My standard casting ammo includes rattling plugs, both long-profile designs and lipless vibrators like Rat-L-Traps. The vibrators can be ripped through sparser weeds. Smaller muskie-size bucktail spinners are also good, as are soft jerkbaits such as the Slug-Go. The big-pike bite may last only five days — reason to monitor weather closely.